Drumming up enthusiasm

Fund-raiser: The city's Polish-American community wants to turn its former church into a Slavic museum.

January 01, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The Very Rev. Jan Ivan Dornic danced the polka yesterday - and not just because it was New Year's Eve.

Trying to forestall the loss of a landmark considered the heart of Baltimore's Polish community, the priest and scores of other Polish-Americans danced the night away at a fund-raising bash that has set a lofty goal. Last night launched the community's drive to raise the estimated half-million dollars needed to buy the shuttered church building once known as St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point.

Since the city parish was closed in 2000 by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, finding a meaningful new use for the building has weighed heavily on Dornic's mind. The idea that gradually dawned on him was to create what he calls a "Slavic mecca," a public museum of Slavic religious, cultural and immigration history inside the former church.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article published in yesterday's Maryland section about a fund-raiser for the former St. Stanislaus Kosta Roman Catholic Church, an incorrect map accompanied the article. The correct map appears below. The Sun regrets the error.

"Then we can preserve St. Stanislaus for the benefit of the city of Baltimore," Dornic said. "The immigrants when they first came - where did they assemble? The church was for Polish, Czech and Ukrainian people."

Several former parishioners, many of whom grew up in the shadow of the church bell tower in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, have rallied around Dornic's concept. A grass-roots committee to establish a St. Stanislaus Church Museum Inc. was organized, even though some are worried that acquiring the property - a prime parcel in the 700 block of S. Ann St. that is now owned by an order of Franciscan friars - will prove a hard bargain.

And they are indignant because they want to see the ornate stained-glass interior of the church from the inside again, before more time slips away.

The friars who own the property, the St. Anthony of Padua Province, have served the church for nearly a century. They have not accepted the community group's proposal. Responding to a deadline set by the friars, the Polish-American committee pledged yesterday more than $400,000 as a prospective bid on the property, Dornic said.

To raise that much money, more Saturday night parties will be held through March in a large banquet hall - or stodola, the Polish word for barn - in the 1700 block of E. Lombard St.

The Rev. Donald Grzymski of the Franciscan Order said yesterday, "To the extent possible, we've been trying to work with [the Polish-American committee]. We'd like to see a resolution."

Grzymski said the friars would make a decision on all bids for the St. Stanislaus structure early this year. He could not comment on other proposed uses for the 1881 Fells Point property, which includes the former church, rectory, school building and convent.

Dorothy G. Hayes, 51, a member of the church museum committee, said her life story is tied up with the old St. Stanislaus, like that of generations of Polish immigrants who arrived on East Baltimore's waterfront to be schooled in English and to find work. After the church was built, she said, it became the center of the Polish community.

"That's where I buried my father," she said yesterday. "I was married there, and my children were baptized there. There were a lot of tears when it closed."

Another former parishioner, Dorothy Weitzel, said yesterday that one of her fondest memories is of the paper poppy flowers women traditionally wore at church on Mother's Day - a Polish-American custom that could be preserved in a museum setting.

Countless bingo games have been played to raise money to save the church building, organizers said, but yesterday's event was the most lavish.

Two hundred and forty balloons shaped like a bell decked the hall.

Kolesie, a band freshly arrived from Poland, warmed up their instruments and vocal cords while two women chopped meats and cheeses in the kitchen for a feast.

Jaroslaw Pasztaleniec, 40, a singer, said the band gladly answered the call across the ocean to play for the cause.

"The church is very important to integrating all the people," he said. "They are trying to keep the community together and the music joins everyone."

Dornic said he wants the property to maintain a dignified presence in the community.

Then as the band struck up, he brightened. Could polka music make it big in Baltimore, he wondered aloud, like country music in Nashville?

"Priests are not supposed to dance," he said. And then he did just that.

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